The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: How local government spends your money

5 mins read

By DAVID TAUB

I am a critic of poor decisions made by Beaufort’s government, particularly for ill-considered projects that cost taxpayers lots of dollars without much return. 

Recently, City Councilman Stephen Murray, and Shelley Barratt, of the Beaufort Digital Corridor (BDC) gave me a guided tour. I was pleasantly surprised and much impressed.

In 2014, the City of Beaufort bought the building at 500 Carteret Street for $1.25 million, to be used for parking and possibly a small parking garage. 

Public opinion was strongly opposed to a parking garage at that location, and consequently it died on the vine. Currently, parking is used by BDC occupants and some spaces for the city’s general use. 

The city considered several incubator/tech-focused projects that could occupy the on-site building after appropriate upfitting to re-purpose it. 

Beaufort’s City Fathers decided to emulate Charleston’s successful high-tech “digital corridor,” contracting with them for the first year’s management, thereby avoiding problems that often plague de novo startups.

The BDC is a stand-alone corporation formed under the 501.c.6 rules of the IRS; it is not a subdivision of city government. The BDC’s mission is to nurture and provide support to technology entrepreneurs. To that end, It offers networking opportunities, continuing education and member-driven programs to help grow the tech economy locally. 

It provides office space, and other support resources, such as a conference room, meeting space, teaching space and a kitchen, and numerous technology programs. Twice a year BDC conducts a two-week training camp, and frequent seminars in related high-tech subjects. 

These types of entrepreneurial operations typically are small, usually one- to four-person companies. 

They do not directly generate lots of jobs by hiring outside employees. Each tenant pays rent, based on size, and each company pays for its own city business licenses. 

Because the building is city owned, no property taxes are generated; currently, BDC uses about 5,000 square feet, about one-third of the total. 

BDC generates modest income from the rental of offices, conference or meeting space, parking, membership in BDC and donations. 

All 10 offices downstairs are occupied and BDC is negotiating with the city for expansion.

Other benefits accrue from having a dynamic nucleus of high-tech industries in downtown Beaufort. For example, BDC provides training for high school and college students in this critically important arena, at low or no cost, which helps prepare our local students for entry into the highly competitive global marketplace that now requires competency in high-tech skills. 

Additionally, there are six co-working desks available on a first come/first served basis. Users must provide their own hardware; sometimes technical assistance may be available.

How much did starting BDC cost the city taxpayers? 

Since BDC uses one-third of the space, about $412,500 can be allocated to BDC for the building’s purchase. Loss of property taxes, about $7,000/year, tally about $21,000 to-date. 

The city underwrote a one-year management contract ($150,000) and provides yearly support for operations of $50,000, about $150,000 for the past three years. 

These basic costs total about $733,500.

I have long expounded on the importance for Beaufort’s decision makers to conduct sophisticated cost/benefit analyses before launching major costly projects. 

But sometimes particular projects do not easily lend themselves to side-by-side comparisons of quantitative metrics — dollars out vs dollars in — and the BDC may well fit that model. 

So-called “intangible” benefits are almost impossible to quantify, yet they may be singularly important aspects of any meaningful analysis; e.g., contributing to the high-tech education of our local student body. 

One office is occupied by a USC Beaufort professor, and BDC has strong professional interfaces with USCB and TCL. 

It seems that the BDC is still in its infancy, and therefore too early yet to conclude that this was a good or bad investment of our tax dollars. 

For the moment, this may well be one of the “good” stories of how Beaufort has spent your taxes. It seems to me that the preliminary assessment would be on the positive side. 

If you haven’t visited the BDC, I encourage you to do so. You may be impressed. 

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